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Grand Chief Edward John Elected Chair of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by Acclamation

A First Nations chief has been named chairman of the 11th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Grand Chief Edward John was elected by acclamation to oversee the annual meeting of Permanent Forum which takes place each May at the United Nations in New York. John’s chairmanship was announced on the morning of May 7 when the session opened. The forum runs through May 18 this year.

“For first time in history of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues we have a chair elected from North America – Grand Chief Ed John!”

John is a Hereditary Chief of Tl'azt'en Nation located on the banks of the Nak'al Bun (Stuart Lake) in northern British Columbia, according to a biographical sketch on the First Nations Summit website. A lawyer for 30 years, John has long pursued social and economic justice for Canada’s indigenous people. He participated in the development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In January, 2011, he was appointed to a three-year term as North American Representative to the Permanent Forum.

John welcomed everyone and thanked the multitude of people, organizations and officials participating in the Permanent Forum. As an expert member of the Permanent Forum, John said he and his colleagues have spent the past year trying to raise awareness of the struggles of Indigenous Peoples and their need of social justice. “Talking a human rights-based approach to the development of the participation of Indigenous Peoples, creating space for Indigenous Peoples, for their effective participation in the U.N. processes and mechanisms is absolutely necessary when designing and implementing policy, program frameworks and projects,” John said. Free, prior and informed consent “remains a fundamentally important principle,” he said. “I pay a heartfelt tribute to the indigenous people of the world who relentlessly pursue their struggles for their survival, rights, dignity wellbeing, their own self determination, development divisions and priorities. I know it’s an incredibly difficult [struggle],” John said.

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The forum opened in the General Assembly Hall with the unique sound of the Australian digeree-do calling the delegates to their seats. Thomas Stelzer, assistant secretary-general at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, presided, providing the initial welcoming. He introduced Onondaga Nation Tadodaho Sidney Hill. “In accordance with the customs of the Indigenous Peoples and in recognition of the peoples of this land, we will now have a traditional welcome by the chief of the Onondaga Nation,” Stelzer said.

Tadodaho Sidney Hill is the spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. His invocation was spoken in the Onondaga language, followed by an English translation. The opening words of his invocation were “People, listen. It is my responsibility to pick up the words of our people. Something heavy has happened at the main village where I come from. A chief has passed away. At this time our minds are low and our ways are that when we go through this we abbreviate or shorten the length of our giving thanks address. This to us he has given, he who is our Creator, this is the way our way is to be. No matter how many the number of people at one place are gathering that it be first his word the giving of thanks. This is become my duty. I put through the first words. Now then, that this day, as it is, the sunlight, as it is, that peaceful our minds should be.” Throughout the invocation, he expressed thanks to the Creator and prayed for the good mind among the delegates. The good mind is a Haudenosaunee practice in which individual or collective thoughts are directed positively.

A day earlier, the Huffington Post posted an opinion piece by Tadodaho Hill about the Doctrine of Discovery – this year’s theme at the Permanent Forum. When the Permanent Forum opens this year, the Tadodaho wrote, “Native peoples around the world will turn their eyes to the most important effort to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th century Papal bull that has been exploited for five centuries to deny the human rights of hundreds of millions of people who continue to be subject to its powers.” A number of conference Room papers on the Doctrine of Discovery will be presented and discussed during the Permanent Forum. Documents are available on the Forum website.

Asha-Rose Mgiro, the U.N. deputy secretary-general, talked about the Permanent Forum’s past and future work. “For eleven years, different voices and different languages have united in this Permanent Forum behind one, single demand: recognition and respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Mgiro said. The Permanent Forum has worked to define priorities and programs for sustainable and culturally appropriate development, she said, but there “can be no development for Indigenous Peoples without the involvement of Indigenous Peoples in every step, and only with their free, prior and informed consent.” Free, prior and informed consent is a fundamental principle enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “yet we do not have to search hard to find Indigenous Peoples facing discrimination, persecution, displacement – even extinction. There are indigenous communities that lack clean drinking water, whose children go hungry, whose women suffer gross abuses and never see the perpetrators brought to justice. A great deal remains to be done to see the objectives of the UN Declaration become a reality,” Mgiro said.

A “high-level event” convened by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will take place in the General Assembly Hall on Thursday, May 17.

Almost 2,000 indigenous participants from all regions of the world are expected to take part in the Permanent Forum this year. They will meet with the expert members of the Permanent Forum, U.N. Member States, and U.N. agencies.